December 19, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Clear 17°C

The Fairly Good Policeman

By David Winner
Published: 2014-10-13


ditor's note: After her death in 2002, the author discovered hundreds of love letters written by his great aunt Dorle Soria in her midtown Manhattan apartment. Soria was a significant figure in the music world beginning in the late 1920s. She was Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini's press secretary and helped bring famed Greek soprano Maria Callas to New York. In her teens, she wrote a book called "Master Lovers of the World" in which she invented short love stories based on lives of iconic men from Casanova to King Henry VIII. What follows is a partially fictitious recreation of one of her own affairs based on details contained in some of her letters, most of which were written in the 1930s.


Royal Hospital Chelsea

We could begin the story of Dorle's romance with British police officer, Alfred Tennyson ("Bill") Barker in several locations. There is, of course, the Lloyd Triestino Line boat from Trieste to Beirut on which Dorle, Bill, a mining engineer named Tallent and a sea captain passed several wine-soaked days.

There is Gallipoli where so many troops were slaughtered but Bill was evacuated. Or whichever other theater of the first world war in which he "dispersed a hostile raiding party that approached our lines in superior numbers and personally bayoneted two of the enemy," earning a military cross. Or the Ireland of the early 1920s when Bill was a member of the infamous Black and Tans who terrorized the Irish population.

But I prefer to begin at the only place in which Bill and I could possibly have crossed paths: outside the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London. My mother, my father and I spent my parents' first sabbatical from the University of Virginia in early 1970s London where I went for a brief time to State School and was jolted by impoverished London schoolmates in raggedy suits who drew pictures in "writing class'" of Brits killing Jerries a good 25 years after the war, and were fed (and in my case once force fed) Brussels sprouts, mystery meats and puddings.

I don't know where we lived in central London, but our journeys on foot often took us through the gardens of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which has housed retired soldiers since 1682. A photograph I found of it looks startlingly familiar: a large courtyard with grand brick buildings and neo-classical temple front displays. The retired soldiers in their red uniforms sit on benches, smoke cigarettes and gaze around them with some strange, bleak pride.

Towards the end of Bill's correspondence with Dorle in the late 1930s, he bewails being "invalided" out of the army. My reach into the recesses of available public information taught me quite a bit about Bill's military career but nothing about his last 25 years except that he was a civilian and that he died in England.

Given how bitterly he spoke of the southwest of England where he was from, he might possibly have retired to the Royal Hospital Chelsea instead. As a commander of a large swathe of British Palestine, he may have earned that honor, and I like to imagine that he had.

Bill Barker sits on a bench in his red uniform, feeling his stomach juices swirl unpleasantly inside him. Requiring two surgeries in his 30s, his insides serve him badly in his 70s. This particular morning he feels the effect of the small glass of his beloved Chianti that he had allowed himself the night before. But what preys on his mind as he sits — posture as erect as ever — on this sultry summer afternoon are the dissonant guitars blasting from the transistor radio of a scraggly long-haired man walking nearby. They hurt his ears and offend his sensibility, so painfully far from anything musical.

He hums a few bars from the Messiah to try to get the sound of it out of his head then a melody from one of Beethoven's symphonies. He'll listen to it later on his turntable if he can remember which one, preferably conducted by Toscanini, his favorite for many decades.

Then, crossing the garden in front of him, he sees myself and my father, hears our American accents, regards our dark hair and Semitic features and thinks back to the American Jewess, Arturo Toscanini's press secretary, whom he'd met on board ship on his way back to Haifa in 1934. We're gone in a flash, but he's destined to spend another afternoon in the past.

The Lloyd Triestino Line

The chronology is hard to figure because so many of Bill's letters lack dates, but I think their encounter on the Austrian Lloyd Triestino Line ship happened when Dorle took off for Europe in the spring of 1934. She had dropped by her old haunts — Paris, Salzburg, Rome — on her way to the Middle East, a place she'd dreamed of since reading "A Thousand and One Nights" as a child gave birth to a lifetime of orientalism.

On a previous visit to Damascus, she had begun an affair with George Asfar, a Syrian merchant who sold carpets and interiors of classic Ottoman homes.

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